My Solo Ascent of Mount Whitney
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
"I just want to be left alone lately," I told my friend, who was not leaving me alone but who didn't seem to hear what I was saying. The combination of a new job that requires me to talk all day, plus a busy summer schedule of traveling/working/racing, plus an uptick in training has left me feeling too tired to care that my unanswered text messages and phone calls and emails are slowly piling up. I needed some space and time to be alone, and what better way to spend some alone time than climbing a mountain? I had a permit for June 2nd. Mount Whitney is one of the most popular mountains in the Eastern Sierra, and the tallest peak in the lower 48. To help manage crowds, a quota system is in place whereby you need a permit in order to climb. There are three ways to get a permit to climb Whitney:
Apply during the annual lottery (February 1 – March 15)
Buy one during the permit mini sale on April 1st (when unclaimed/unpaid for hiking permits from the initial lottery open up to the public)
During the hiking season (May 1 – November 1, these must be reserved online)
During the hiking season (May 1 - November 1), you can also check up until the day before the date you want to hike to see if there are any available permits resulting from cancellations. Starting May 1st, any available permits will be available on a first-come, first-serve basis.
I've done Mount Whitney twice, both times from the portal (not the less popular mountaineers route). The trail is an out and back that's roughly 20 miles with just over 6,200 feet of gain. Lots of people do an overnight backpacking trip to help acclimate to the altitude, but I've never obtained an overnight permit, and I prefer to do it as a day hike.
I started from Whitney portal at 5 a.m., not needing a headlight as the sunlight slowly broke over the ridge behind me. I love how the mountains smell-a mixture of pine needles and sage. The air is so clean it felt dirty to return to the city. I passed a few groups as I climbed, all of them smiling, "Good morning!" About three miles in is where the Mount Whitney zone begins, and where you need a permit. On the way up, there are multiple stream crossings, and on the way down, I would filter water from one of them. The first few miles are relatively runnable, and I alternated between hiking and running until I got to the base of the 99 switchbacks, just past Trail Camp and about six miles in.
The switchbacks cut sharply up the side of the mountain, and there were two spots that still held a bit of snow and ice. They were totally safe and passable with my poles and trail shoes (Altra Olympus fours). I met a man coming down who turned around at the top of the switchbacks, about 2.5 miles from the top, due to altitude sickness. He turned around at about 13,500 feet, which is pretty high if you're not used to altitude. I made sure to drink water, eat every hour, and take salt tabs (I take these ones). I also took an ibuprofen on the way up, which has been shown to help with swelling and inflammation triggered by higher altitudes. Over the course of my entire run/hike, I ate 4 Spring Energy gels (the awesome sauce flavor) and 4 Nature Valley biscuits.
At the top of the 99 switchbacks I entered John Muir Wilderness. From there, it's less than two and half miles from the summit, and the views are epic on both sides. I chatted with a group of hikers from L.A. who were doing an overnight trip, and continued on my way. I reached the peak just after 9 a.m., and the skies were clear with minimal wind. I spent about 30 minutes at the peak, where a handful of other hikers sat, and where a friendly marmot begged for snacks. I was happy to start descending into some thicker air, and ran when the trail was clear while walking over treacherous sections. As I ran down the 99 switchbacks, a group of hikers I'd passed earlier cheered for me. "You're going to love it up there," I told them.
Once I got to the bottom of the 99 switchbacks, I ran by Trail Camp again, and stopped to refill my water about half a mile later. There is no water past Trail Camp, so be sure to fill up if you need to before attempting to summit. I drank about three liters over the course of my run, and my pack only holds two. I knew it would be important to have a good filter, so I brought a Katadyn 1 Liter and it worked perfectly. It grew warm on my descent, and I had a minor headache from the elevation, but the last few miles are so beautiful and runnable that I didn't mind.
By the time I returned to my car, I was exhausted and sweaty and ready for some real food. All I had left was an apple and a tiny bottle of coke that I'd stored in the bear box next to my car. It's super important not to store food in your car, as there is considerable bear activity in the area. I saw a picture online of a car that a bear had ripped apart in an attempt to get the food that was stored inside. On my way back to Orange County, I bought a disappointing Subway sandwich and sat in traffic for hours, a stark contrast to the solitude I'd just enjoyed.
I love Mount Whitney, and the entire range of the Eastern Sierras. There are some important things to keep in mind though, if you decide to tackle it, or one of the many peaks in the range.
Check the weather. Weather changes quickly at 14,000 feet, and you need to prepare for things like rain, strong winds, or (later in the year) ice and snow.
Don't venture outside your abilities. The guy I met who turned around at the top of the switchbacks was being smart. Don't let your pride or desire to reach the peak lead you into dangerous territory.
Don't poop on the trail. Seriously, don't. There are "wag bags" (human waste containers) at the portal trailhead that you can use to carry out your waste, and there are designated human waste receptacles for disposing them.
Be prepared. It took me about 7 hours to do Mount Whitney, but that's not the norm, especially if you're hiking. Plan for a full day of hiking and pack enough food/water accordingly. Also plan to do some of your hike in the dark.
Enjoy your day and be nice! Only 100 Whitney permits are issued per day, so enjoy how special the experience is. In 2021, there were more than 25,000 applications submitted requesting space for 108,500 people. Only 28% of group leaders were awarded a date of their choice, and 72% were unsuccessful.